Prosecuting Assange for Publishing Classified Material Would Set a Dangerous Precedent

This prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act would be a clear danger to press freedoms — the government could subsequently use the Assange case as a precedent to go after whistleblowers acting in the public interest by them disclosing classified material about corruption that should be known to the public. Assange has done some things that are quite wrong in my view — it’s another matter to debate what things those are — but he has also done some good things and regardless of his character, it’d be harmful to prosecute him in the way the U.S. government is now trying to do so.

Assange was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday. The charges are seen by many proponents of press freedom on both the right and the left as part of an effort from the White House to criminalize dissent by journalism and to produce a chilling effect on reporters exposing classified documents that the government would prefer remain hidden.

Despite the unpopularity of the Trump administration among Democrats, however, at press time only three members of the party’s congressional delegation has spoken up: Wyden, of Oregon; Warren, of Massachusetts; and Independent Sanders of Vermont.

In a statement, Wyden said that he was “extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment.”

“This is not about Julian Assange,” said Wyden. “This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information.”

“Let me be clear: it is a disturbing attack on the First Amendment for the Trump administration to decide who is or is not a reporter for the purposes of a criminal prosecution,” Sanders said in a tweet Friday. “Donald Trump must obey the Constitution, which protects the publication of news about our government.”

[…]

Critics of Assange have claimed that the Wikileaks founder is not a journalist, so his “crimes” are not applicable to journalists and journalism as a whole. But, as Knight First Amendment Institute staff attorney Carrie DeCell pointed out in a twitter thread, that’s not the case.

“The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information,” DeCell tweeted. “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.”

[…]

In a column at The Intercept, journalist James Risen put the indictment into context.

“If the government gets to decide what constitutes journalism,” Risen wrote, “what’s to stop it from making similar rulings about any outlet whose coverage it doesn’t like?”

The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel made the stakes clear in a tweet.

“Espionage charges against Assange are a threat to press freedom,” said vanden Heuvel.

Assange also got support from The Washington Post‘s executive editor, Marty Baron. In a statement, Baron said that the Trump administration was making a jump from hostility to the press to criminalizing journalism.

“With this new indictment of Julian Assange,” said Baron, “the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy.”

Baron was joined in his denunciation of the indictment by the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a statement the government was threatening a “basic tenet of press freedom.”

“Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy,” said Baquet. “The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.”

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Mr. Boston — The Formerly Secretive Role of Gar Alperovitz in the Release of the Pentagon Papers

Democracy Now’s recent interview with Gar Alperovitz is important and well-done. Many more people should know about what’s being discussed here, due to both current threats to humanity and the values needed for a much more sustainable future.

Audio: 

For more than 40 years, Alperovitz kept a close secret. In 1971, he clandestinely helped Ellsberg distribute sections of the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers across the country, at a time when the Nixon administration was trying to block publication. Alperovitz would go on to become a well-known historian, professor and political economist, but he kept his role in the Pentagon Papers leak a secret, until this week, when he spoke to The New Yorker magazine. The identities of who else worked with Gar Alperovitz to aid Ellsberg remains a secret. Dan Ellsberg told The New Yorker the secret role this group played was so crucial in releasing the Pentagon Papers he gave them a code name: “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Alperovitz went by the alias “Mr. Boston.” Ellsberg told The New Yorker, quote, “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.”

[…]

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, two things, I think, brought me to this judgment it was time to actually talk about this. One, it came back into the news because of the big movie, The Post, which describes some of this, which had been out of the news and out of consciousness for a long, long time. So, it offered an opportunity to think about this subject in a very powerful way, because lots of folks have seen that movie, and it raised the subject. And secondly—so the context was there.

And secondly, the dangers of this administration. Particularly, I’ve written about nuclear weapons a great deal. The dangers of this administration, I think it’s time for people to really think through what they can do, however small, however they want, to find a way, to actually find, personally, to do something to try to begin to build up a more democratic option and a way to avoid some of the real dangers. The possibility of nuclear war in Korea is a real possibility. There has been nuclear war in Asia, obviously: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is an area that I’ve written a great deal about. People, I think, need to think seriously about where they—what they can do to make for a more peaceful and a world that doesn’t repeat those mistakes.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of nuclear war, again, raised once again by President Trump, you know, talking about expanding the nuclear arsenal, in his State of the Union address this week, and reportedly saying to his chiefs of—to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?” You are a longtime historian, have written eloquently about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can you talk about this? Why not use them?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, they are—the weapons we have today are so many times more powerful than anything was used in World War II at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and, I would mention, at that point, against the will of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom came out after the war, all the top military leaders, with the one exception, publicly, after the war, saying the bombing was totally unnecessary in Hiroshima. We are now in a case where nuclear weapons are many, many, many times more powerful, and many, many thousands of them, and very, very dangerous because they are so easily launched.

And my hope is, both a public action will begin to build up, understanding that this is a threshold that should not be crossed, and that I hope, actually, some people within the government, just as during World War II the Joint Chiefs tried to stop that action, which was unnecessary and they knew was unnecessary, I would hope people begin to think, “What could we do?” What could they can do personally? And I think that’s an individual decision for everyone to make, what kind of things they can do in the circumstances they face. But I think the trillion dollars that’s now about to be spent to upgrade and increase the nuclear weapon supply—a trillion dollars—we are going into a whole new phase and with a government that is, so far, irresponsible in so many other ways, that this is a very dangerous period of American history.

AMY GOODMAN: You write a lot about changing the system, a lot about economics. Has that also played a role, given the passage of the tax law? You discuss the issue of inequality. We’re seeing the greatest growth of inequality in this country than any time in history.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t think we’re going to change what we do in foreign policy in a fundamental way, until we change what we do in the system. And I think we’re at a place where we’re facing what I would call a slow-boiling systemic crisis—traditional corporate capitalism producing great inequality, ecological destruction, increasing tensions in racial matters and gender matters, violence abroad. That process, the danger of slipping over into some form of formal or informal repression is very real. On the other hand, if the corporate capitalist system fails, the state socialist system also fails.

The basis of a new society and a new direction is really thinking through what can be a genuinely community-sustaining, peaceful vision of what the next system is. I’m a historian and political economist, and I see it as: How do we build the next two to three decades? Maybe taking off from what Bernie has shown us, taking off from what activists in the black community and the gay community and the feminist movement, the environmental community. There is a building-up process that has to go well beyond the politics of today towards a transformative vision that is much different than the vision that now supports the nuclear weapons and the military outreach. I think we’re in that period, and it could be a long period. But the lesson of all this, for me, is that we need to go both deeper and more boldly and begin building right from the bottom up, with a view to understanding—let me say it carefully: Systems change all the time in history. I think we have the opportunity to establish the conditions, if we’re serious, of laying down the foundations for a transformation. I didn’t say change the system tomorrow, I said building the basis of a transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: Gar, as we wrap up, are you proud of what you did in helping Dan Ellsberg get the Pentagon Papers out?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: “Proud” is a funny word. I did what I thought was necessary, what was important to do. I don’t think of it as pride, but I’m glad I did it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Gar Alperovitz, historian, political economist, revealed this week he secretly helped Dan Ellsberg leak the Pentagon Papers. Gar Alperovitz is author, most recently, of Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of its Next System Project.

Prominent NYT Reporter Writes About Covering the War on Terror

Someone could make a plausible case that James Risen deserves a Pulitzer for this. Much worse writing (as seen with Thomas Friedman and David Brooks) has certainly been given awards to.

I believe my willingness to fight the government for seven years may make prosecutors less eager to force other reporters to testify about their sources. At the same time, the Obama administration used my case to destroy the legal underpinnings of the reporter’s privilege in the 4th Circuit, which means that if the government does decide to go after more reporters, those reporters will have fewer legal protections in Virginia and Maryland, home to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA, and thus the jurisdiction where many national security leak investigations will be conducted. That will make it easier for Donald Trump and the presidents who come after him to conduct an even more draconian assault on press freedom in the United States.

The battles over national security reporting in the years after 9/11 have yielded mixed results. In my view, the mainstream media has missed some key lessons from the debacle over WMD reporting before the war in Iraq. Times reporter Judy Miller became an easy scapegoat, perhaps because she was a woman in the male-dominated field of national security reporting. Focusing on her made it easier for everyone to forget how widespread the flawed pre-war reporting really was at almost every major media outlet. “They wanted a convenient target, someone to blame,” Miller told me recently. The anti-female bias “was part of it.” She notes that one chapter in her 2015 memoir, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,” is titled “Scapegoat.”

Since then, I believe the Times, the Washington Post and other national news organizations have sometimes hyped threats from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The exaggerated reporting on terrorism, in particular, has had a major political impact in the United States and helped close off debate in Washington over whether to significantly roll back some of the most draconian counterterrorism programs, like NSA spying.

But overall, I do believe that the fight inside the Times over the NSA story helped usher in a new era of more aggressive national security reporting at the paper. Since then, the Times has been much more willing to stand up to the government and refuse to go along with White House demands to hold or kill stories.

Profile of Whistleblower Reality Winner

Reality Winner (and her name is explained in the profile) is the latest example in how the corporate U.S. government treats its national security whistleblowers. The 1917 Espionage Act is truly among the worst parts of U.S. law.

Reality Winner would have been making the best money of her life at Pluribus, but she had never been particularly interested in what money can buy. She rented, sight unseen, an 800-square-foot house in a part of Augusta the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls “hardscrabble” and her ex-boyfriend calls “blighted”; her neighbors parked their cars on brown, patchy lawns. (“I did not look at a map when I signed the lease,” she’d later tell the FBI, “but I’m well armed.”) The rooms were filled with workout equipment, sneakers, and sticky notes on which were scrawled workout regimes (“Bench 5×5, Back Squat 5×5”) but also stray thoughts about issues with which she was preoccupied (“Peace-making is less of a rational-economic model of dividing resources and territory fairly”; “Further research: Deserts versus rainforest”). Months later, when her mother walked me through the house, she’d point to Reality’s room and say, “The world’s biggest terrorist has a Pikachu bedspread.”

Reality was searched for thumb drives and cell phones every morning as she walked into the Whitelaw Building; her lunch, security guards noted as they pawed through it, was very healthy. She translated Farsi in documents relating to Iran’s aerospace program, work for which she had no particular affinity and which seems to have bored her. For those mornings when she did not feel like reading more documents about Iran’s aerospace program, she evidently had access to documents well outside her area of expertise. She had access, for example, to a five-page classified report detailing a Russian attempt to access American election infrastructure through a private software company. This would be, ultimately, the document she leaked. According to the analysis in the report, Russian intelligence sent phishing emails to the employees of a company that provides election support to eight states. After obtaining log-in credentials, the Russians sent emails infected with malware to over 100 election officials, days before the election, from what looked like the software company’s address.